When Walt Disney’s Third Man on the Mountain was released in 1959, it was another family-friendly movie based on the children’s novel Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman. However, to watch it now is to behold a retroactive critique of postmodern Western values.

On the surface, the film concerns young Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) who dreams of climbing the nearby Citadel, the tallest mountain in the Alps and where his father died when he was an infant. Resisting him in this aspiration are his mother along with his climbing guide uncle (James Donald), who are both determined to keep Rudi confined to town.

But looking through a modern lens, the story is an unapologetically masculine tale imbued with traditionalist imagery and themes regarding gender and community.

Positive Masculinity and the Ideal Western Man

This becomes apparent early in the film when Rudi rescues Captain John Winters (Michael Rennie), a famous English climber also determined to summit the Citadel. Winters not only represents the best of the Western man, but is the ideal mentor, exuding a quiet sense of wisdom and confidence yet lacking vices or flaws. While Rudi’s family mock his dream, Winters tactfully encourages him without disrespecting the uncle or mother. Together with aging former climber Teo Zurbriggenconveys (Laurence Naismith), who also inspires Rudi, they convey what Rollo Tomassi would call “positive masculinity” that is sorely lacking in our culture and entertainment.

If there is a moral to the film, it is a definitively masculine one: “honor before glory.” Rudi aspires to be a climbing guide like his father, who are never to leave their clients no matter their condition. Rudi’s father died adhering to that code after stripping off his own clothing to keep his injured climber alive.

At the film’s climax, Rudi has the chance to finally conquer the Citadel, but only by abandoning an injured rival climbing guide from another village, who is certain to die without help. The guide insists he go on, arguing that by navigating a route long thought impossible, Rudi deserved to be first.

But Rudi knows if he makes it to the top, it will come at a price his father refused to pay.

Traditional Women vs. Fake Traditionalists

The movie depicts traditional relations between the men and women that would offend both feminist and social conservative sensibilities. His girlfriend Lizbeth (Janet Munro) is unmistakably feminine. She is interested in helping Rudi by encouraging him, not proving she’s his equal or browbeating him. Devoid of cynicism, she offers a sense of joy and hope.

The most radical part of Lizbeth is her determination not to change Rudi, but to encourage him even when he has lost faith in his own abilities. She doesn’t see him as a flawed female in need of fixing or to be controlled. This is in stark contrast with Rudi’s mother, who although wanting him to be safe and financially secure, is unwittingly trying to deny him his self-dignity.

At one point in the movie, the two women argue over Rudi’s future. His mother points out that as a climbing guide, Rudi won’t make much money. Lizbeth says she doesn’t care whether she’s the wife of a guide, “or a dishwasher. Or a hotel proprietor. But never the wife of a hotel proprietor who wanted to climb mountains, because a man must do what he feels he must, or he isn’t a man. And no one—wife, mother, or sweetheart—has a right to make him into something he wasn’t to be.”

With the rise of online Western women who shamelessly and deceitfully promote themselves on social media as embodying classical feminine traits while refusing to abandon fundamental feminist values, Lizbeth is powerful rebuke of what passes for a “traditional woman” today.

The delineation between the sexes in town is evident from the clothes they wear to the tacit gender segregation: a tavern scene shows men drinking beer together in an implicitly male-exclusive environment. All the climbers are men. Rudi’s mother generates enough tension and risk to keep the plot going, but she is hardly present.

One scene features a town festival in which the women are singing in the village square while dressed in traditional garb. Across from them, a row of men in formal attire admire the performance while smoking on pipes and drinking spirits. Such powerful imagery also conveys a sense of authentic community, of a people united by genuine values and familial bonds. The film greatly emphasizes Rudi’s ties to the town and how they rely on each other for day-to-day affairs. When he finally triumphs, the achievement is celebrated collectively.

Unbinding Fake Globalist Ties

Third Man on the Mountain offers an additional blow to the globalist “citizens of the world” mantra in how it portrays the deep conflict between Rudi’s uncle and the rival guide Emil Saxo (Herbery Lom), who hails from a nearby village and wants to summit the Citadel “for his people.” Because the peak overlooks Rudi’s village—the town center has a public telescope to view it—it is considered “their mountain.”

In contrast to what we constantly hear about how “diversity is our strength” and “we are the world,” these men come from the same continent, same country, the same canton, and speak the same language, yet enough differences remain between them that they treat each other like foreigners, as outsiders to be regarded with suspicion.

Viewers will note that the ending doesn’t have anyone renounce their distinct identities. They are still separate peoples, yet there is now a newly-found respect that was lacking. It’s clear Saxo’s desire to summit despite the dangers is in part to give his people a sense of pride through his achievement, not hate against Rudi or his village. The implication is that differences and separation are acceptable and normal among peoples, provided it does not lead to misplaced hostility and feuds.

As Dean Abbott has pointed out, older Disney films hold a strong romantic view of life, in opposition to modernity. But unlike films such as Mary Poppins whose plots are implicitly centered around such dissent, there’s nothing to suggest Third Man on the Mountain aspired to be anything other than another Disney adaption of a children’s novel. What makes it so subversive today speaks less about the filmmakers’ intent in 1959 than the fundamental transformations of Western society since the film’s release.

One shouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future the film ends up in the Disney Vault.

Click here to watch Third Man on the Mountain.